BALTIMORE – One of the biggest questions surrounding the 2022 Steelers was if they could overcome not having Ben Roethlisberger's late-game heroics around any longer.
After all, Roethlisberger led the NFL in 2021 with six fourth-quarter comebacks, giving him 41 in his career, a total that ranks behind only Tom Brady and Peyton Manning in NFL history.
With each passing week, Kenny Pickett continues to show he's got that same clutch gene Roethlisberger showed in his 18 seasons with the Steelers.
A week after leading the Steelers to a 13-10 come-from-behind win over the Raiders on Christmas Eve at Heinz Field, pick did it again on New Year's Day, leading the Steelers on a late touchdown drive here against the Baltimore Ravens in a 16-13 win at M&T Bank Stadium.
For the Steelers, taking over at their own 20, down 13-9 with 4:16 remaining in the game, they had no doubt they were going to go down and score – despite having not done so the rest of the game.
"Absolutely. You put us in a situation like that, we work it every day in camp," said tight end Pat Freiermuth. "Kenny threw the ball and the o-line has been playing great. We got 198 rushing yards on the Baltimore Ravens. We're very calm, cool and collected in those situations."
Credit head coach Mike Tomlin for practicing those two-minute-type situations. But also credit Pickett and company for their demeanor with the game on the line, as well.
"I think he's used to big games. He's kind of at home in it," said guard Kevin Dotson of the rookie quarterback.
Dotson and the rest of the team believed, largely because Pickett had just led the Steelers back last week in the same situation. Not having scored a touchdown the entire game against the Raiders, Pickett put the Steelers in the end zone when they needed it.
But this was different. That happened at Acrisure Stadium with a friendly crowd watching on. This was at M&T Bank Stadium. And unlike many other road venues, where Steelers fans often take over the building, that isn't happening in Baltimore.
The crowd was loud. The Ravens turned the lights off in the building multiple times during commercial breaks and played Metallica's "Enter Sandman," Baltimore's version of "Renegade." It didn't matter.
The Steelers knew they could go down and score because they had just done it a week before.
"I think it gave us the confidence to not get flustered in the moment because we knew we could do it. I think that helped a lot. Nobody started talking out of their head," Dotson said.
"I believe. I believe in him. I believed in him when he first got in. These kind of things build up trust for sure. I'm riding with him."
Thing is, Pickett was 10 of 21 for 108 yards passing before that game-winning drive. On the game-winning drive, he was 5 of 6 for 60 yards, including a 10-yard touchdown pass to Najee Harris.
Game action photos from the Steelers' Week 17 game against the Baltimore Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium
He was at his best with the game on the line.
"It's similar, but definitely tougher on the road," Pickett said of this win. "Communication, you're just kind of a step behind just because of the noise and dealing with that and not being able to hear each other. But I think we had great prep all week. Coach has put us in that situation a lot with crowd noise in practice. I think all those extra reps, in-game reps and in-practice reps, really came through for us."
This was coming through in a big-time moment in a big-time game.
"We're comfortable in those situations," said Freiermuth. "We worked them all (training) camp. We've got the playmakers to figure it out in those situations and Kenny makes great decisions."
• After Justin Tucker kicked a 51-yard field goal to give the Ravens a 13-3 lead on the opening possession of the second half, the Ravens had just two first downs. And one of those came on their final possession, right before Minkah Fitzpatrick sealed the win with his sixth interception of the season.
Baltimore had nine rushes for 32 yards in the second half, but 22 of that came on one run by J.K. Dobbins during the Tucker field goal drive.
On their other eight rushes in the second half, the Ravens gained 10 yards on the ground.
"I think as the game progresses, you're able to listen to calls and get an idea," said defensive lineman Cam Heyward. "You can look at their stance. It's one thing to look at it on film. It's different to see it in the game. You've got to just be able to keep battling back."
The Steelers did that. After allowing 215 rushing yards to the Ravens Dec. 11, the Steelers held Baltimore to 120 yards on 28 carries. With no passing game to speak of – Tyler Huntley was 14 of 21 for 130 yards – stopping Baltmore's running game was critical.
The Ravens, who entered this game with the second-fewest three-and-outs in the NFL, went three-and-out three times on their eight possessions in this game, including twice in the fourth quarter.
None of those were bigger than after the Ravens got a 57-yard kickoff return to the Pittsburgh 40 after the Steelers had cut the lead to 13-9.
Three plays netted negative-2 yards. And the Ravens wouldn't even send robo-kicker Justin Tucker on to try a field goal from there.
"We just played more stout. There was a chance for them to get points on the board with the long kickoff return," said Heyward. "Guys stepped up and we got off the field quick and made them punt. I just thought we kept battling back. We kept knocking on the door and finally opened it."
• The Steelers made some lineup changes to help things out against the run game. Rookies Mark Robinson and DeMarvin Leal started at inside linebacker and as an extra defensive lineman and made an impact.
Robinson had seven tackles, while Leal added three.
"Mark Rob throws his face in the fan every time. He's going to hit hard," said linebacker T.J. Watt, who had a key sack in the fourth quarter. "I'm super proud of the development he's shown this year. Leal is a yes guy. He's going to do whatever it takes to win, whether it's dropping into coverage or rushing the passer or sitting in the 2 gap. I'm proud of those guys."
• You'd better believe Heyward was relieved when Pickett threw the touchdown pass to Harris.
Prior to that, the game's only touchdown came after Heyward was penalized for unnecessary roughness to give the Ravens a new set of downs at the end of the first half. On the next play, Huntley threw a 7-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Isaiah Likely.
Heyward was in on a third-down tackle of J.K. Dobbins and as he laid on the pile, Ravens tackle Ronnie Stanley pulled Heyward's arm down. As he fought to keep his balance, Heyward swung his other arm down, but made contact with an official trying to unpile everyone.
"I didn't even know the ref was that close, so I went like this (making a swiping motion to catch himself), not thinking anything of it," Hayward said. "He threw the flag as soon as I made contact with him. I didn't even know it at the time. Thank God we were able to rally back and that wasn't the deciding factor in the game."
• Credit at least part of the Steelers' ability to deal with Baltimore's rushing attack to one of their own offensive lineman.
In practice last week, backup center Kendrick Green lined up and played Baltimore's 300-pound fullback Patrick Ricard all week long.
"I guess I did alright. The defense played good, so that's good," Green said. "They told me what I had to do last week and I just tried to do what I could to help us win. I gave my best effort. That's all I could do. I think I did pretty good."
Green even went out for a pass at one point and made a catch down the seam.
"I think that's what I'm better at than Ricard. I catch the ball," Green said with a laugh.
• It took them 16 games, but the Steelers finally got a 100-yard rusher this season, as Harris bullied his way to 111 yards on 22 carries.
To be clear, Harris could have gone over 100 yards in some previous games. Since the Steelers' bye in Week 9, Harris has had 86 or more rushing yards in a game five times, including 99 yards in a game against the Saints.
But he's also shared carries with rookie Jaylen Warren at times. In this game, both running backs ate and came away full. Warren also had 72 rushing yards on 12 carries.
The Steelers turned the tables on the Ravens, who had 215 rushing yards against them in the first game. They gained 198 yards on 41 carries.
Baltimore entered this game having allowed 65 or fewer rushing yards in five of their past eight games.
The Steelers blew past that number early in the second quarter.
"That's our mentality going into every game, to run the ball," said Freiermuth. "Credit to our o-line. They played awesome and cleared holes for Najee and Jaylen. The blocking on the edge was great. We went in there and competed and played like we were supposed to."
The Steelers had just 65 rushing yards against the Ravens when these two teams met last month. But over 50 of those came in the first half before the Steelers went away from their rushing attack.
This time around, even though they trailed, they kept at it.
"We just knew we could run the ball. They put it on us. We took advantage of that," said Dotson. "We know we're a running team. We know what we want to do. Anytime we pass, we're wishing we would have run. When they give us the opportunity, we're going to take it every time."
• So, the Steelers now need to win and need the Jets to win or tie the Dolphins in Miami and the Patriots to lose or tie at Buffalo to get into the playoffs.
It's not all that far-fetched.
But much like this week, they can't control anything but getting a win of their own, in this case over Cleveland at Acrisure Stadium.
"All we can worry about is the Cleveland Browns," Hayward said.
All of that said, they were watching what was going on with those other teams. The Dolphins' game at New England was on at the team hotel before players left for the stadium. And they certainly saw what was going on with the Jets, who lost at Seattle.
"You'd be lying if you said you weren't peeking at it," Pickett said. "But we knew we had a job to do. We all saw what was going on and we were, you know, laser focused when we came in here."
• Tomlin has his critics. But the Steelers have now won six of eight games after starting 2-6. They just don't quit.
And that's coaching.
This is a team with a rookie quarterback, who now has a 6-5 record as a starter. The Steelers have a rookie starting at wide receiver. They have three other second-year starters on offense.
And in this game, Pickett became just the third rookie starting quarterback to win a game at Baltimore. Mitch Trubisky with Chicago and Jake Plummer with the Cardinals are the others.
Even if the cards don't fall the right way for the Steelers next weekend, they've shown they can be a factor in 2023. This is a team that has continued to get better.
That's a direct reflection of the head coach and his staff.
• The Ravens throw a lot of different looks at a quarterback. And their coverage on the back end is very good.
That's one of the things that was so impressive about Pickett in this game. Several of his biggest plays came off script when things broke down.
He hit a 22-yard pass to Freiermuth early on the game-winning drive, scrambling out of the pocket to his left.
Same thing on the game-winning touchdown pass to Harris. Harris released to the flat, but saw Pickett getting out of the pocket and took off for the end zone.
"It's a motion-out play. Obviously, if the guy comes to me or not, I have to motion-out," Harris said. "And you know, I'm good right there. But if not, then Kenny looks somewhere else. But then it turned into the scramble rule and I just scramble, like in practice, and I was open and Kenny threw a good ball,and I was able to catch it and score."
Those are getting better and better over the last few weeks. In some early weeks with Pickett, he would scramble and receivers wouldn't break with him. Pickett would end up tossing the ball out of bounds.
Now, they seem to be getting more comfortable when Pickett leaves the pocket.
• The ability to win these kind of games isn't just a confidence level for Pickett, but it's a confidence level the team has in Pickett.
He saw it when he stepped into the huddle.
"I think it's just confidence that I had in myself is showing up on the field, and I think guys are starting to feel that, which is always good," Pickett said. "Going into the huddle and seeing how confident everyone is, as a quarterback, you know they have a lot of belief in you, and I have a lot of belief in those guys in the huddle. So, when that is there, you definitely have a shot."